This Old House: Godfrey Cheshire’s Family History

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The New York Sun

Soon after Christmas in 2002, the Manhattan-based film critic Godfrey Cheshire, a North Carolina native, learned that his cousins in Raleigh were moving. Not earth-shattering news at first glance, except that his relatives, Charlie and Dena Silver, lived in the family’s ancestral home. Midway, a bona fide plantation house, was built on land first acquired in the 18th century and had been home to generations. This would be a move in the most literal sense. The Silvers were planning to pick up the manor and wheel it away to a new location — an act fraught with significance and potential.

“My first idea was I should take a digital camera and make a document for the family,” Mr. Cheshire, the director of the forthcoming documentary “Moving Midway,” said. “But when I asked some friends what kind of camera to get, and said what I wanted it for, they said, ‘Oh no, this is too good — you need to make a real film.'”

The result, five years later, is “Moving Midway,” which uses a chronicle of the move to explore the history, the myths, and, in a sense, the family bonds that can tie a nation together. Mr. Cheshire examines on-the-ground logistics and the mixed emotions behind uprooting the house, and includes an essay-style cultural dissection of the plantation house as an object of fascination, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” through “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone With the Wind,” and beyond. Hearing out kinfolk and delving into slavery and its legacy, Mr. Cheshire grapples with deep-seated questions of Southern identity.

“Growing up, I was enthralled with the mythology of the South and very much into the lore of the Confederacy,” Mr. Cheshire, who as a boy summered with his “country cousins” at Midway, said. “And I grew up during the civil rights era, when that was first thrown into question somewhat. When I was a little kid, it was not in question anywhere. When I was intellectually cognizant for the first time, I could see it being buffeted.”

Further deepening the story of the Southern experience in “Moving Midway” was the discovery, during production, of an African-American branch of the filmmaker’s family, one that traces back to a union between a great-great-great-grandfather and a Midway slave. By chance, Mr. Cheshire then came across a letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review from a separate descendant, Robert Hinton, a professor at New York University whose ancestor was another slave at Midway. After the two met, Mr. Hinton became an integral part of the project, conducting research and providing the film with wise and witty commentary on the thorny issues at hand.

“Now I can’t imagine the film without him,” Mr. Cheshire said. “Robert has an emotional connection to all of it, and yet he also has a real intellectual perspective on it. And he’s a really good teacher.”

For Mr. Cheshire, the process of filmmaking was also illuminating for another aspect of his identity: practicing film critic. He made his professional start in 1978, and currently writes regularly for Raleigh’s Independent Weekly from his base in New York. For his filmmaking debut, he and his camera crews deployed HD, 35 mm, 16 mm, Beta SP, and small digital cameras. But maybe the biggest milestone in his new endeavor came after filming.

“The number one thing I’ve discovered in this whole process that impacts my assumptions as a reviewer is that I don’t believe any filmmaker knows anything about what they’ve got until it goes up in front of a real audience,” Mr. Cheshire said. “It was a completely hypothetical thing until it was in front of an audience. And all of a sudden it’s alive, it’s real, and you see.”

“Moving Midway,” screenings of which are often accompanied by question-and-answer sessions with Mr. Cheshire and sometimes Mr. Hinton, has found enthusiastic and inquisitive audiences at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series and elsewhere. (An earlier version was rejected by Sundance: “The best single thing that happened to the film throughout its history,” Mr. Cheshire, who initiated a top-down re-edit, said.)

The precise nature of the reception varied across the country, even within the South.

“Southerners seem to see the film as a whole, and each element in it related to their lives, so they were seeing it as a film about their lives in the South,” Mr. Cheshire said. “Northern audiences seem to see it as different components: Some people were more interested in the movie stuff, or the racial stuff, or the family stuff. Out West, it’s almost like it’s about another country. Whereas in North Carolina, it’s so close to home that it’s almost a little prosaic. The most fervent reaction has come in Virginia and Mississippi: They’re far enough away from it that they react it to as the Southern myth, rather than their backyard.”

Responses from Mr. Cheshire’s own family have included both an embrace of its success and a grumbling inevitably bound up with the move of the house. As for Mr. Hinton, who teaches Africana studies at NYU, his research for the film will form the groundwork for a book he plans to write.

“It will be a story of the whole relationship between his family and my family from the 1720s down to the 1870s,” Mr. Hinton said. “This is sort of my life’s work from now on.”

It’s an inspiring continuation of the illuminating dialogue that the film helps foster. Meanwhile, even as Mr. Cheshire introduces more audiences to Midway, his work is cut out for him: He’s busy plotting out two historical dramas, as a screenwriter and producer. The stories of the South: to be continued.

The New York Sun

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